Refugee Week: Swindon City of Sanctuary

A scheme that places refugees with host families in Swindon is helping to prevent them becoming homeless – but it needs more help.

Swindon City of Sanctuary, a charity that works to change peoples’ attitudes to asylum seekers and give a deeper understanding of their plight, piloted the scheme in 2017 but launched it fully in January with the help of £5,000 a year funding from the Wiltshire Community Foundation for three years.

Because Swindon is designated as a dispersal town for asylum seekers, there are as many as 200 in the town at any one time. Although they are from diverse places such as Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq, Syria or Kuwait, they all have one thing in common – they have all endured horrendous and often dangerous journeys to get to Britain.

Those journeys often leave a physical and mental toll on them, says development worker Nicola Johnson. “They can suffer from stress or mental health issues, there is also language barrier. They feel insecure and face an uncertain future,” she said.

They also face a tough legal battle to change in the eyes of the law from asylum seekers to refugees and be granted a right to remain the in the UK.

“It’s a long, difficult and unpredictable process,” said Nicola. “They live in asylum accommodation and are paid £36.95 a week. They are not allowed to work and because they are not mixing with English people they find it difficult to learn the language.”

The process of being granted a right to remain can take up to four years and can involve lengthy and emotionally taxing appeals. But if they win the fight often it signals the start of a whole new set of problems.

“They are given 28 days to leave their asylum accommodation and stand on their own feet,” said Nicola. “They have not been able to save any money, they still have the language barrier and they have no cv or references to get a job.

“Those with families will be found somewhere to live by the council but those who are single men really struggle and many of them can end up destitute. They go off the radar and end up sleeping rough.”

After learning of a hosting scheme run by sister organisation Oxford City of Sanctuary the Swindon group used its contacts to recruit a handful of host families for a pilot scheme, called Room For All, between May and August last year.

Four people were hosted for up to three months and all of them had moved on to jobs and permanent accommodation by the end of the project.

The community foundation funding employed hosting co-ordinator Natalie North in January when the scheme was launched in full. Now 11 host families from Swindon have been signed up and up to nine refugees have been hosted at any one time.

“It has been a success,” said Natalie. “There have been real benefits for the refugees because their English has improved and they are getting experience of the English way of life. It gives them somewhere safe and secure to stay and it takes away some of the stress knowing that they have somewhere to sleep. They gain more confidence too.”

Although the number of asylum seekers coming to Swindon has slowed, the need for the hosting scheme is just as great, said Natalie. “The support for asylum seekers is diminishing. There are fewer places for them to go to so we need more host families,” she said.

And it is not just refugees that need homes, the group finds places for other vulnerable migrants with no formal funding, such as those who have been a victim of sex trafficking.

Potential hosts are given rigorous safety checks and are assigned a support worker who visits them regularly.

“Our hosts tend to be those people whose children have grown up and left home or are at university, although we do have single people who have a spare room,” said Nicola.

The experience for those being hosted can be life-changing but it is a positive one for the hosts too.

“It’s a positive cultural experience for the hosts and for those living on their own it can provide company,” said Natalie.

“One extra important benefit of our hosting scheme is that it aids integration as guests are living with Swindon residents. They get the support and friendship from our local community which hopefully helps to break down barriers and create community cohesion.”

Fay Howard of Swindon took in 19-year-old Kuwaiti Ahmed to live with her, husband Ian and children Ellen and David. She said: “He stayed with us four weeks and is now part of our family.

“He learnt a little more English, he laughed at the same things as us, he followed world news intently. We learnt where to buy Halal meat, how alien a knife and fork can be, how rough life is for far too many, and that family can be made in just four weeks.”

Ellen added: “Opening our home to Ahmed has been the most insightful, emotive and inspiring experience. We could not have asked a more kind, caring and humble addition to our family.”

To find out more about Room For All visit here, and for more about the Wiltshire Community Foundation go to their website

 

Refugee Week is held on the 18 - 24 of June and it is the largest festival in the UK to celebrate the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees. Not only is it a week of celebration, but a week of promotion by which refugees tell their stories and promote greater understanding of why people seek sanctuary. For more information please visit their website.

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